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Not Easily Changed

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All roads in my life led back to Buckkeep. Would that I had accepted that long ago, I would have perhaps saved myself, and those I loved, a lifetime of heartache. But I have always been slow to learn my lessons. I am the Changer, but I am not easily changed. And for my intractability, I had nearly lost my daughter.

As I had lost the Fool. He was gone, and I could not let myself think of him. If I did, I would break.

My Bee sat before the hearthfire in the rooms that had long ago belonged to Lady Patience, her skinny knees hugged to her chest. Moonlight spilled through the gossamer drapes that hung from the windows and silvered my daughter’s white hair, while the firelight turned her skin to gold. I’d scarcely been more than a stone’s throw away from her since her rescue, yet in that time she’d never been further from my reach. I could sense her with the Wit and knew better than to touch her mind with the Skill, but my awareness of her was not in doubt. A different gulf yawned between us; and, very much as it had been with her mother, I knew not how to breach it. At least I now possessed the wisdom to question whether I should. Molly would have been proud of that.

My daughter’s ladies’ maid, Spry, had done an admirable job of making the room as accommodating as possible for Bee’s petite size, but Kettricken had bequeathed these chambers to my daughter for the security they offered, not practicality. Even with my room and Nettle’s just down the corridor, I felt something smaller would have been more appropriate. These were better suited to a grown woman than a child still recovering from a traumatic ordeal, and they had always been drafty. I picked up one of the blankets that had been folded and left to warm near the fire and gently draped it around her shoulders.

Bee all but vanished into the thick folds of the fabric. She shrugged into it and curled it around her small body like armor. I quested to her tenderly, and felt my heart break when firmly, decisively, she shut me out. Had I the will to push the matter, it’s possible I could have. I did not.

“I’m just down the hall,” I told her, hoarse despite myself. “If you need me.” As I had expected, she said nothing. I left quietly and closed the door behind me.

Nettle awaited me in the corridor, practically dressed despite the late hour. I felt her Skill, a barely restrained force of nature, along the edges of my consciousness. Her exertions over the last several months had grayed her face and frayed her controls, but I doubted anyone but those who knew her as well as I could read her exhaustion in her bearing. She was the King’s Skill Mistress, and conducted herself accordingly.

She was also my daughter. Whatever else had passed between us, however many times I had and would continue to disappoint her, I knew I had her love. Burrich at one time might have counseled me to prefer respect. But I understood now what a precious gift love was, especially when one has done nothing to deserve it.

“How is she?” Nettle asked of her sister, her eyes falling upon the closed door. She held her hands tightly clasped together in front of herself.

In truth I didn’t know, and I suppose it showed on my face. I cleared my throat. “She is much recovered from the journey, at least,” I replied, and that much I knew to be the truth. “She ate an acceptable portion of her dinner, and her lessons go well. Whatever else she feels now, she keeps it to herself.” To herself, I wondered sadly, or just apart from me?

The harsh lines of worry in Nettle’s face softened and I watched the edge of tension leave her shoulders. She didn’t lose her frown, but nodded. “She has been through an ordeal none of us can begin to comprehend. She will talk when she is ready, in time.” Even as she spoke the words aloud, I could feel as much as sense her doubt. Already we had waited for months. She reined it in expertly and, meeting my eyes, rested both her hands on my arm. “But she is safe now, Fitz. We’d do well to remember that, all of us.”

The Bastard’s pecksie child, safe in Buckkeep. I wanted to scoff, but as much as it chafed against my instincts, I reminded myself that Bee was taken not from within these sturdy castle walls, but from soft, remote, safe Withywoods. Buckkeep’s courtly intrigue which had defined the better part of my life--and my death--could not have been further away from my quiet existence with Bee in our valley estate. Still, our enemies found her, and even had I been present to fight for her, I am but one man. I would have been one more dead body in the snow.

In my heart, all I had ever wanted for Bee was her happiness and safety, and in my arrogance I had convinced myself that no one else but I, and I alone, could provide those things for her. Yet when the Fool had needed me, I had left her alone and vulnerable because I’d left myself with no alternative. From someplace deep inside me, I heard sage advice that surely was not mine. Wolves aren’t meant to hunt alone. Open your eyes, little brother.

I have, I answered, but when I quested out into the night, I found nothing but empty wilderness and winter snow. There were no more wolves in Buckkeep.

I felt Nettle’s eyes on me and realized I’d been quiet for too long. I made my mouth smile, grim and closed, and took the first step towards her room. She fell into step alongside me, companionably quiet and steadfast. I could have let that silence linger between us, comfortable and without expectation. Our shared grief and trauma had mended much of what had been broken between us, and I recognized the wisdom in letting those old disputes rest. But one had to be unearthed, because I had come to a decision that pained me, even though I knew it was the only course I could take.

“You were right,” I admitted.

My daughter didn’t answer immediately, but I think she knew without asking what I intended to say. Still, politic, she gave me a bemused smile and answered with quiet confidence, “I often am. What about?”

“Bee. She should have come to Buckkeep when first you asked it of us.” Nettle waited, expectant, and I steadied myself for the rest. Speaking it would make it so and change our lives forever. “And I should have come back. I always should have come back.”

Nettle said nothing, but slowed to a stop and pulled at my arm to stop me as well. I had to look at her then, and was unprepared for the expression of mingled sadness, relief and joy I read in her features. Her hands, always stronger than they looked, like her mother’s had been, squeezed my arm.

“It won’t be like it was before.” This reassurance, a fierce whisper, before she put her arms around my shoulders and hugged me tightly as she hadn’t done since Molly’s death. “You have my word. I am sure you have the King’s word as well, but he will want to speak them to you himself.” When she let me go, she was smiling, and I wondered whether I saw a sheen of tears in her eyes, or if it was just a trick of the sconces on the stone walls. It is a puzzle to me that her temerity could so warm my heart while I knew also that I did not believe her. I wondered if she knew the true gravity of such a promise.

But I smiled because she smiled, and stood outside her door a moment longer after she disappeared inside and to bed. The keep slept deeply around me. Save for the guards at their posts, I was alone.

My path back to my chambers took me past Bee’s room. I stopped long enough to press my ear to the door but heard nothing. She had either taken herself to bed, or still sat before the fire with her eyes fixed on it. Reluctantly, I moved away, up the curved and drafty stairwell that would take me to my room. Fixed into the curvature of the stone passageway was a single narrow window looking out across the sea, and for a moment the sight of it, the smell of the salt on the air, brought a memory of Verity in his tower to me that was so vivid I had to catch my breath.

Verity, my king, as far gone from the world as a man could be without true death. Bee, sitting waiflike and alone in the quarters of the woman who would have been my mother. If I chanced a visit down to the stables, I knew what heartache would greet me there. There would be no respite for me in a midnight hunt, for there was no wolf to run beside me. And the Fool. Oh, my Fool. I’d told Nettle I would stay, and I would keep my word. But would it always be like this, I wondered. Wading through memories, seeing naught but ghosts around me?

At length I made myself turn away from the window. But I stopped just short of entering my room because the door was already ajar, and through it came the scent of apricots. Dried, I could tell, because of the season, but apricots nonetheless. A thin beam of warm yellow light undulated across the stone steps. Someone had woken the embers in the hearth.

I knew it was him before I opened the door, and felt a rush of pure joy at the sight of his back near the fire. The Fool, dressed in servant’s blue, sat a rickety chair beside a table with a basket on it, his spindly legs folded beneath himself and his eyes turned up towards a familiar tapestry fixed to the wall. I didn’t know who thought to move King Wisdom and the Elderling into my chambers; Chade, perhaps, and then I knew it with certainty. I hadn’t told him of my decision to stay, but I would not have put it past him to presume, and to know what the sight of that tapestry from my youth would convey to me. To him, the two of us would always be the King’s Men.

I could not be furious at the liberties my old mentor had taken, however, not right then. The Fool heard the door open, but did not turn to me immediately. He reached into a small basket of candied fruits he’d procured--how? his means of obscuring his identity to all continued to mystify me--collected a handful, then unfolded his legs from the chair and stood. He turned to me and met my eyes, his clear of disease and poison, the color of rich amber. Our coterie had mended him well, but I knew he would carry the marks of his abuse in the bones of his face forever.

He was beautiful to me even so, simply because he stood in my room alive and well, and did not lie dead in the tall grasses of Clerres where I’d been forced to leave him.

I stared at him, wide-eyed. I must have made some nameless noise of distress, or possibly he read my combined joy and unfathomable guilt in my features, for he shook his head and walked towards me. “Now, now,” he chided and stopped before me. He held out two of the apricots. “I’ll have none of that from you.”

I took the fruit and held it in my hands, but I could not look away from him. His amber eyes could see me clearly; his skin and hair the color of darkly varnished wood; his crooked nose; the whimsical corner of his mouth, which would always quirk oddly now after the beating he’d taken, but could smile again all the same. A trace of the makeup he’d worn to conceal his identity still dusted across one of the ragged scars that cut his expressive brow. Unthinking, I reached out my thumb to wipe it away, and watched the merriment leave his eyes, revealing something infinitely more precious in its wake. The Fool brought his hand up, slender still but hale and healthy, and knit his fingers through mine. He held my palm against his cheek.

I couldn’t breathe. Air caught in my throat when I tried, and I choked, “Fool,” as I gathered him into my arms and held him close. I buried a hand in his hair, my face in his neck. I heard him drop the apricots, but I didn’t care. “Oh, Fool. Beloved, I left you behind.”

His arms had a thin, wiry strength as he curled them around my shoulders. His fingers carded through my hair, mussing it. Slight as he was, I felt as though he cradled me, not the other way around. He trembled in our embrace, though he hid it well, and shushed me gently. I felt his voice as much as heard it. “Do you think I ever would have forgiven you if you had rescued me, and not her? No, Fitz, no. Don’t beg forgiveness from me. There’s nothing to forgive.”

I wept. I could not help it, and my soul ached for it, but with a sweetness akin to the relief of a taut muscle coaxed after too long into flexing again. The Fool held me for as long as I clung to him, and when at last I had regained some control over myself, he coaxed me gently into the chair by the fire. I sank into it willingly and leaned my weight against the table where the basket of apricots still sat. Their sweet smell tempted me and finally I took one, savoring it.

The Fool found another chair in a shadowed corner of my room, drew it up beside mine, and folded himself into his seat again. The light from the fire cast the harsh angles of his face into sharp relief. I watched him reach for an apricot and let the silence stretch between us. I felt raw from my outburst, but the quiet was like letting air get to a wound to help it heal. I needed it.

After a moment, I asked, “How?” and knew he would know what I meant.

He bent a knee up to his chest and wrapped his arm around it. He lolled his head at me, a smile in his eyes if not quite on his lips. “Does it matter how I managed it, if I am whole and here with you now?”

His words and the timbre of his voice sent familiar warmth curling through me. The wolf embraced the rightness of the feeling without thought, but I held myself back from it. My curiosity had not been assuaged. “You speak like this when you wish to hide something from me for my own good,” I told him. He looked away as I went on. “I don’t ask for details, Fool. Truly, it is enough for me that you came back. But don’t keep what happened a secret in order to spare my feelings. I’m not a child.”

He looked back at me, a glint in his eyes. “Not compared to some, perhaps,” he said dryly, and I scoffed. He smiled, then plucked another apricot out of the basket and examined it while he spoke. “Do you often think on what happened in Regal’s dungeons?” he asked softly.

The question pulled everything hard to port for me. My mouth went dry. “Not if I can help it.”

The Fool nodded.  “It is like that for me, with this. It was a torment, Fitz, and yet I survived. I escaped. I came back here.” He looked at me with unguarded eyes and I knew what he left unsaid. With his freedom he could have gone anywhere, but from Clerres he chose to make an arduous journey north back to the Six Duchies, to Buckkeep. To me.

How does one respond to such a demonstration of loyalty and love? The deepest part of my soul knew--but as I said, I have always been slow to learn my lessons. In that moment I felt pulled to him, for as ever my Wit sense knew my heart long before my head. The wolf doesn’t chase his thoughts in circles. But I am not the wolf--not completely--and so I sat fixed to my chair, my mind furiously searching for the right words, the right way to feel, and came up uselessly with nothing.

At least my stymied silence did not surprise the Fool, and if I disappointed him he did not show it. He took pity on me with a small smile, popped the apricot he’d been holding into his mouth, then picked out another one. “Tell me how Bee fairs,” he said instead, and I was unsure whether to rue the change in subject, or be grateful to him.

I rubbed the line of my jaw and contemplated my reply. “She’s kept to herself these past two months,” I began and watched the fire. “Nettle says that she’s visited the Queen’s Gardens and that Riddle has taken her down to the stables a time or two to ride. Kettricken tells me she’s taken an interest in one of Verity’s old sextants and keeps it in her room. Her maid Spry assures me she attends her lessons, eats her meals, dresses herself well and bathes when she should. As to what she thinks and feels about any of it, I could not tell you. She eschews my company so completely that all I know of her I’ve been forced to discover second hand.”

The Fool had grown still and quiet in his chair, watching me. I wished he would speak some wit to allay my fears, but he had never been the kind of friend to tell me what I wanted to hear in lieu of what I needed. I took a breath. “She hates me completely, Fool, because I left you for dead. And Eda help me, but I can’t begrudge her those feelings. I’ve hated myself for it, too.”

“Stop.” The sharpness in his tone caught me off-guard. “I told you, I’ll have none of that.”

Exasperated, I demanded, “Then I should forget the sight of your lifeless body as I chose to leave you in that awful place?”

“Whither and whether you left me for dead, you had no choice. I can’t stop you from deluding yourself into believing that you did, but I beg you, I beg you to try.” He twisted in his chair and reached both hands across the table to take mine, clasping it between his. As ever his skin felt so cool to my touch, even marred as it now was by scars and calluses. “Please, try.”

He could not have begged for anything more impossible, but I could not deny him. I never could. “I make no promises,” I said softly and curled my fingers into his. “But I will try.”

He kept his eyes fixed on my face for a weighted moment as though trying to discern with his stare whether I meant what I said. At last the line of his brow softened and he smiled at me. He swept his thumb across my knuckles in a gentle, intimate caress, then let go of my hand and stood up. “I must away to bed,” he said and made a show of smartly straightening the blue jerkin he wore. “Candor must be at his post in the kitchens come the early morning.”

I parsed his intentions neatly. “Candor?” I repeated, incredulous.

“I can’t very well resuscitate Lord Golden. Candor will suffice, for now.” The Fool left me to wonder at his meaning and crossed the the shadows cast by the hearthfire, towards my bedroom door. “Goodnight, Fitz. Save some of the apricots for Bee.”

I got to my feet and took a step after him. “Wait,” I said. The Fool paused at my door, his hand on the latch, and turned his questioning amber eyes on me. “May I tell her that you’re alive?”

I saw him visibly start, watched the briefest flicker of indecision cross his features. It was no small request I made of him, for had he wanted others to know of his return, he wouldn’t have sought to come to me in disguise. But he nodded. “I will go with you, when you do.”

There were no words I could say to him that could adequately express my gratitude. His risk meant I might earn my daughter’s forgiveness, and I could ascribe no value to that gift. Looking at his slight figure in my doorway, I instead told him, “Goodnight, Fool.” He gave me one more smile, then slipped soundlessly out of sight.

 

That night I dreamed of the tall Clerres grass at dawn, of the Fool and Bee walking through it hand in hand to stand at my side. Next to me, Nighteyes stretched out his long limbs and shook out his coat. This is a good life, little brother, he told me.

It is a good dream, I replied, and too short for my liking. Already I could feel the faint warmth of winter sunlight on my face, pulling me towards wakefulness. A gust of dream wind scattered the Fool and Bee away from me like so many dandelion seeds. Nighteyes trotted after them.

Then make it last, he said and raced towards the sun as it crested the horizon.

I woke slowly to the sight of a cold hearth and the basket of apricots, and smiled into my pillow.